October 2020 in Review

I can’t quite believe we’re here at the end of October, just a few days away from the election we’ve been anticipating since November 9, 2016, and with no end to this pandemic in sight. I am cautiously optimistic about the election, but that’s mostly because my brain simply cannot handle the idea of a Trump victory. When I try to imagine it, my brain just refuses. Let’s hope my brain is right. At any rate, I’ll be working as an election officer on Tuesday, and I’m glad I’ll having something meaningful to do all day. This year, Virginia has no-excuse early voting for the first time (thanks to the once-unimaginable flipping of the state legislature last year), and last I heard, 40% of the voters at my precinct had voted, so it may not be a very busy day — or at least not so busy to be stressful. But we’ll see. I’m looking forward to that part of the day, but I can’t think beyond that.

I’ve also been fretting about the winter and possible increases in COVID cases. Most of my (still limited) activities away from home are still outside or in well-ventilated indoor spaces. What will cold weather do to those options? What about the holidays? We take it as it comes, I suppose, which goes against my planning nature.

Even with all that on my mind, books proved to be a useful distraction throughout October. Unlike in September, when I couldn’t concentrate on much of anything well enough to enjoy or appreciate it, I was able to really enjoy most of the October reading, even making my way through some Dickens!

Jack by Marilynne Robinson. The fourth Gilead novel is indeed a marvel. But I’d expect no less from one of America’s greatest living writers. Although not my favorite in the series (as some sections went on a little too long), this story about a man desperately in need of grace and love but finding himself unable to accept it was a moving addition to the Gilead collection.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. As I noted in my review, reading a massive 19th-century novel seemed like a risk, given my low concentration levels, but it proved to be perfect for these times. The characters and their winding story held my interest, and the story overall made me very happy.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh. What a joy to revisit Brosh’s stories. I laughed and laughed and am really looking forward to getting my hands on her new book.

Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg. Interesting take on the “dead girl” thriller. It’s not so much as thriller as it is a meditation on what it’s like for women to be adjacent to or involved with acts of violence against women. Does it terrify them, beguile them, or leave them generally unfazed? And, in this case, the dead girl gets the last word, while she is still vibrant and alive.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. Chung’s story of her adoption by her white parents and her search for her Korean family is a thoughtful examination of family and culture and identity. She shows a lot of compassion for everyone involved while remaining honest about her own pain.

Summer by Ali Smith. None of the novels in the seasonal quartet have stirred me quite as much as Autumn did, but Summer may come the closest. Perhaps these books work best for me at times of high emotion. I do wish I’d reread the previous novels — I’ve forgotten enough of the previous novels that the connections between them were somewhat lost to me.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. I’m kind of surprised that I haven’t heard more about this book. It’s set in a near future when many more animals have gone extinct, and a woman named Franny is following what is probably the last flock of Arctic terns as they migrate south. She joins a fishing vessel with a promise that tracking the birds will enable them to also find the few remaining fish in the sea. But she has secrets in her past that touch on her quest to follow the birds. It took me a while to get into this book. A lot of it is told in flashback, and it’s not even clear from the start what the nature of the mystery in Franny’s past is, but once I got interested, I really enjoyed it. There’s something in it about how life just keeps going on that got to me. I was especially struck by this passage toward the end:

I can’t move to pull on my clothes except that somehow I do, and I can’t stand on two feet except that somehow I do, and I can’t walk, there’s no way I can walk, except I do. I take step after step after step after step.

Let us all keep taking step after step after step, even when it seems we can’t.

Posted in Classics, Contemporary, Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics | 3 Comments

Hyperbole and a Half

Ten years ago, it seemed like everyone on the internet was in love with the art and storytelling of Allie Brosh. I certainly was. Like so many others, I was a faithful reader of her blog, Hyperbole and a Halfwhere she wrote of growing up as a weird kid obsessed with cake, taking care of two very weird dogs, and managing a sometimes debilitating depression. Her stories combined seemingly crude drawings (she always looks rather like a googly-eyed worm with wire hanger appendages) and ridiculous but relatable scenarios (who hasn’t tried to figure out just what their oddball pets are thinking?) to create magic.

She published a collection of stories from the blog in 2013 to great acclaim, even outside the internet. And then she more or less disappeared from her blog, not updating it until this year, when she announced a new collection, Solutions and Other Problems. However, the library hold list for that book is long, so I figured I might as well read her first book, since I didn’t actually read it at the time, knowing that most of it had already appeared on her website. It is just as good as I remembered.

I read the entire collection in an evening, in the midst of a stressful week, and I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard. I remembered her God of Cake story well, and I couldn’t possibly forget Simple Dog and Helper Dog, but it was fun to revisit them. I didn’t remember the goose getting into the house; although she had written about it on her blog, the story in the book is more elaborate, and the version in the book was unbearably funny. Now I’m looking forward to the new book even more.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Memoir | 7 Comments

Our Mutual Friend

After the blah reading month I had in October, picking up a pick Victorian novel like Our Mutual Friend seemed like a potentially terrible idea. If I didn’t have the attention span to read and enjoy short contemporary novels, how could I expect to get anything at all out of Dickens? Especially when I’ve had mixed success with Dickens.  (Loved Great Expectations and Bleak House, did not like David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.)

Except, here’s the thing: it was massive Victorian novels, and Great Expectations in particular that helped me make the transition from books for young people to books for adults. When I was in my teens and early 20s, a huge portion of my reading was massive Victorian novels. These were the books that taught me to be an adult reader. I’ve rarely found them a struggle, and I’ve almost always found them engaging, even when I didn’t love them. And friends who like Dickens more than I do had told me that, based on the Dickens I did like, Our Mutual Friend was a good choice for my next Dickens. So when a group of Twitter friends decided to read in October, I figured I might as well try. Friends, I gobbled that book down in a single long weekend and had a great time doing it.

Our Mutual Friend opens with a boatman and his daughter, Lizzie, finding a dead body in the water. The body is deemed to be that of John Harmon, newly arrived in London to claim a large inheritance from his recently deceased father. To get the inheritance, Harmon would have to Bella Wilfer, whose family aspires to wealth but has little extra money. With Harmon’s death and no marriage, Bella loses out on this chance for a fortune, and the estate goes to the next in line, the Boffins, the servants of the deceased.

The Boffins take to their new state with giddiness and generosity, taking in Bella, deciding to adopt a poor child, and hiring a one-legged street salesman named Wegg to teach Mr. Boffin to read (they don’t realize Wegg is barely literate themselves). They buy a new home and seem committed to enjoying themselves.

There’s also a teacher named Bradley Headstone, who is in love with Lizzie Hexam, the boatman’s daughter. And Jenny Wren, a doll maker who is friends with Lizzie. And some lawyers and social climbers and various and sundry other people who are connected to the central characters through a network of mutual friendship. (It was never clear to me who the titular mutual friend is supposed to be.)

Anyway, there are a lot of characters and a lot of story. So much that after I realized that my poor attention span of 2020 could wreck my reading of the book, I decided to make notes at the end of each chapter, indicating who met up with whom and what the key plot point seemed to be. That made a huge difference in my ability to keep up, and it kept me asking questions about what events are of the most significance and which direction the characters are going. Because the characters do evolve throughout the book, as their fortunes wax and wane.

This is a book where the desire for fortune is clearly a corrupting influence, yet where certain basic needs exist and are barely met for some characters. It’s relevant. Poverty creates desperation, but not necessarily criminality. Wealth breeds miserliness, but must it always? And want, of a fortune or a relationship or a hidden treasure (there is one!), can lead people to commit drastic acts. It’s the characters who find a way to let go of their expectations who are able to maintain some sense of morality.

That’s not to say that there’s no sense of justice in this novel. It’s not a book about how the poor should be happy in their poverty or anything like that. It’s more about how seeking to better one’s circumstances at the expense of others is never the right course. And the characters who actively look out for the needs of others are the ones most able to appreciate what they do have. Again, relevant.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 10 Comments

Jack

A new novel by Marilynne Robinson is always a cause for celebration, but the release of this novel is extra special because we finally get to learn more about Jack Boughton, son of Boughton, the Presbyterian minister who is close friends with John Ames, narrator of Gilead. Jack is also the brother of Glory, the main character of the second Gilead book, Home. In those novels, Jack is a source of great concern and frustration of the characters. He’s something of a black sheep who left home years ago, and his return to Gilead causes no small amount of consternation.

In Jack, we get to see something of Jack’s life outside Gilead. From the earlier novels, we know that he is married to a Black woman, and her family’s disapproval, together with the miscegenation laws of the time, has kept them apart. In this book, we get to see how they got together in the first place.

When Jack first meets Della, he’s just gotten out of prison and is wandering the streets of St. Louis. She’s a schoolteacher and obviously too good for him. But when she drops a bunch of papers in the streets and he scrambles to pick them up for her, they become forever entangled. (Yes, it’s a romantic comedy meet cute.) An all-night talk while walking around a sprawling cemetery seals their bond.

Of course, in the 1950s, a relationship between a white ex-con and thief and a Black schoolteacher would be pretty close to an impossible relationship, on a number of levels. The problem of their different races is always there, but, for Jack, the real problem is that he just cannot see his own goodness. He’s been mired in a life of petty theft and general dissolution for years, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s who he is. And his Calvinist background no doubt enters into it, as he’s clearly haunted by what he learned of predestination from his father.

Della doesn’t know the details of Jack’s background, but she also doesn’t seem overly concerned about it. She can see he’s struggling in the here and now, and she wants him to do better, but she also loves and accepts him as he is and seems to rest in the belief that he is a decent man at heart. Interestingly, she is the daughter of a Methodist minister, and Methodism offers more room for humanity’s response to God than the Boughton family’s Calvinism. This is a huge oversimplification, of course, but knowing Robinson’s interest in theology, the choice of denomination had to be a deliberate choice. She is a Calvinist herself, so I don’t think she’s meaning to make Calvinism out to be a bad thing, but she’s also probably fully aware of how Calvinist ideas can go wrong, as they seem to for Jack.

The book recounts their falling in love and trying to decide what to do about it. Although the external forces that will eventually push them apart are there, most of the conflict is internal, as Jack seeks to become the sort of man who deserves a woman like Della. And Della just loves the man that he is. As is typical with Robinson, it is a book about grace.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 5 Comments

Piranesi


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been longing for another novel from Clarke ever since I first read that masterpiece. (I haven’t read her  story collection, fearing that short stories won’t have the same immersive quality.) Piranesi is very different from her earlier novel, but it has that same quality of pulling readers into a whole other world, where the rules are different and strange. In this case, the world is a watery castle, occupied by a man called Piranesi (although that is not his name) and another man he calls The Other. Piranesi spends his days cataloging what’s in each room of the vast sprawling world and meeting periodically with The Other.

The experience  of reading Piranesi was so rich for me. Clarke creates a whole word, and our guide is an appealingly deliberate and careful sort of person that I both related to and cared about. He seems contented in his odd life, moving from room to room, keeping numbered journals, and always attentive to the tides that flood various rooms. But, as a reader watching from the outside, I could see reasons to be wary (and not just because it’s a strange world).

This rest of this post is potentially spoilery, but I will avoid specifics as best I can.

The book got me thinking about the worlds we create for ourselves, through the media we choose to consume, the people we choose to believe, and the ideas we choose to pursue. This is, of course, pertinent to our current moment, with so many people diving head-first into conspiracy theories in which Democrats and media elites are harvesting children’s blood to consume their life force.

Once on the inside of that world, it’s next to impossible for people to see a different reality. Things that seem bizarre to anyone else (such as that the entire media apparatus is covering up child trafficking with nary a leak) seem perfectly plausible. For Piranesi, it makes sense that the whole world is just two people and that one of those people somehow is able to access food and supplies that Piranesi cannot. Like Piranesi, believers in conspiracy theories obsessively catalog every clue about the world as they understand it and they don’t really take a step back to see that the story doesn’t make sense.

In Piranesi, a third person eventually arrives, someone The Other perceives as a threat. What is that third person going to reveal? Who will Piranesi listen to? And all of this is wrapped up in the fact that Piranesi is happy in his little world. He has no desire to see anything different. And, as readers, we can’t help but wonder what he would find if his world gets bigger. Is he safer in his strange house, moving along with the tides, just as we’re safer at home in a pandemic? 

I don’t necessarily think Clarke was intentionally writing a parable for these times, but maybe! It certainly functioned that way for me. Plus, it’s just a really good story. It feels at times like a horror story built on unease, which is my favorite kind of horror story — where something isn’t quite right but you can’t put your finger on it. And the world is different enough from our own that we cannot be sure what’s going on until the book reveals its secrets.

I loved it. It was worth the wait.

Posted in Speculative Fiction, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

September Reading in Review

Do you ever feel guilty for not loving a book? I sometimes do, especially when I have several middling reading experiences in a row with books that don’t have obvious problems because that’s when I have good reason to suspect that the problem is me, rather than the book, and I feel bad that my mood kept me from giving a book a “fair” shake. That’s especially the case when I have warm feelings toward an author.

That’s what my reading in September was like. With a few exceptions, my reading failed to engage me. I even abandoned three books! But then I also read one of my most-anticipated books of the year and ended up absolutely loving it.

So, here we go.

The book of the month is Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been longing for another novel from Clarke ever since I first read that masterpiece. This was every bit as wonderful as I hoped and left me with a lot to think about. I’m working on a standalone review to share those thoughts in more detail.

Two Pretty Good Books

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is the story of performance artists. Parents Caleb and Camille create and record various stunts/pranks out in the world, usually involving their children Annie and Buster (known Child A and Child B in writing about the Fangs’ work). But as Anne and Buster grow up, they aren’t so much on board, and they resent having been pulled into these stunts in the first place. This wasn’t nearly as good as Wilson’s more recent Nothing to See Here, but I liked seeing how these two young adults had to figure out how to get past what their parents did to them.

Beyond the Glass by Antonia White is the final book in the Clara Batchelor series. In it, Antonia White presents an unsettling depiction of what it feels like to suffer a serious mental illness. Clara seems to be moving on from her disastrous marriage and making what could be a fresh start when her mind loses grip on reality. White herself apparently spend time in a mental institution so I assume that what she describes is true to her own experience. Her total inability to get a handle on who and where she is and what is real is difficult to watch, and it is just as painful to see her family suffer from having to decide what to do. I liked, too, that White doesn’t present some clear explanation, whether stress or religion or a lurking brain defect. It is a thing that happens, like so many other tragedies in this series (and in life). I’ve really enjoyed these books and only wish there could have been more. I would have liked to have seen how Clara took her next steps into the world.

Four Mixed Experiences

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer. I loved Version Control and Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, so I decided to go back and check out Dexter Palmer’s debut. I’m sorry to say it was a disappointment. There’s a terrific story buried down in here, all about how love can turn into possession and how our visions for others’ happiness can be informed by our own desires as much as by what they want. And the steampunk-inspired fantasy world of the book is great.

But, wow, there’s just too much going on here. For the first several chapters, there’s a lot of throat-clearing about what the story will be, with its main character and primary narrator, Harold Winslow, sharing where he is and what is going on with him. Once he actually starts telling the story, it improves, but even then, there’s too much happening. I think that Palmer was trying to be stylistically innovative, but all that innovation ended up being a distraction. His later books do not suffer from this at all, which makes me think that, this being a debut, he was really trying to show his talent. And he has talent! It’s just harder to see it here than in his more coherent later books.

The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong. This story of a South Korean man named Yu-Jin who wakes up one morning to find himself covered in blood and his mother knifed to death was really close to being a success. I really enjoyed how the story developed in this, with Yu-Jin discovering/remembering new bits of information, each of which leads the reader to change their views of him and what happened. However, once I’d caught on to what the author was doing, the unraveling got a little less interesting, at least until the final moments where it all comes to a head. It could be my short attention span at the moment, but I think it would have been better if it were a little shorter.

Luster by Raven Leilani. Edie is a twenty-something Black woman who starts dating an older white man with a wife and an adopted Black daughter and ends up getting enmeshed with the whole family. I liked that this is about a young, messy Black woman, when a lot of these narratives focus on white people (usually men). And her femininity and Blackness affect her experiences as a messy woman in ways that made intuitive sense to me. I also liked the messiness of the family. All the characters were had issues and none were particularly likable, but it was interesting to see how they bounced off each other. There’s also some humor that I appreciated.

The main issue I had with this was the writing. It does a thing that is common with a lot of literary writing these days — trying to be both poetic and informal and never quite landing on a single style. I saw a Goodreads review that said it’s both overwritten and underwritten at the same time, and that’s about how I felt about it. It felt written, and I prefer books where the voice feels natural (regardless of whether the style is florid or spare).

Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam. This is another one that was so close to being a success and my problems with it are probably even more attributable to my mood than in the other cases. It’s an epistolary novel made up of letters by a middle-aged London woman named Eliza Peabody to her neighbor Joan who recently left her home and husband with no warning. Eliza is grappling to understand what it going on all around her, as her own husband leaves and she has various puzzling encounters with neighbors and strangers. The wanderings of Eliza’s mind were hard for me to keep up with, especially as she increasingly loses her grip on reality (an inadvertent theme in my books this month). My own mind was wandering too much to add Eliza’s muddled thinking on top.

Three Abandoned Books

Family Linen by Lee Smith. Since loving Fair and Tender Ladies a couple of years ago, I’ve been wanting to read more Lee Smith. (I read several of her books in college, but don’t remember which ones.) This starts out with a lot of promise, involving a family mystery and possible murder. But the element of the story got almost no attention after being introduced. Instead, each chapter introduces another member of this very large family. I usually don’t mind a large cast of characters, or a book without a lot of story, but this was too much for me, so I bailed at about the halfway point.

My Next Bride by Kay Boyle. I used to make a habit of picking up any green Viragos I found in used bookstores that looked at all appealing. This 1934 novel about a young American who gets wrapped up in a Parisian artists’ colony was one such acquisition. After reading about 80 pages, I decided to give up because the style was not working for me — it’s just scene after scene of people being eccentric with little actual explanation of who they are and what their relationships are. You have to read between the lines to glean any actual information and follow the story. That’s a clear stylistic choice, but it’s not one I generally enjoy, and it’s definitely not one I have the mental wherewithal to deal with right now.

Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara. I love the idea of this book about the Atlanta Child Murders from the perspective of a family with a missing son, and the writing is often remarkable. It’s disheartening to know how many of the concerns raised here, about the way the system treats Black families, for example, haven’t changed much since the events of the book in the early 1980s or since the book was published in 1999. Seeing what the family at the center of the book went through as they tried to get help finding their son was truly wrenching and it provides an important perspective on so many child endangerment stories.

But the book is more than 600 pages and after 250 pages, and it was getting to be a slog and I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to read 400 more. This is another case where I suspect part of the problem is my own attention span, but I also wonder if the story really needs 600-plus pages to be told well. 


And as for October

The next book on my list is Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Jack, which I’ve heard is just as good as (or better than) her other Gilead novels. Jack’s story is one I’ve wanted more detail about, so I’m really hoping that my brain doesn’t keep me from enjoying it. At least I’ll know some of the characters already!

After that, I’m hoping to join in with some Twitter friends who are reading Our Mutual Friend, which has been on my list as my next Dickens for approximately a million years. I have mixed success with Dickens, having loved two of his novels (Great Expectations and Bleak House) and not enjoyed two others (David Copperfield and Oliver Twist). Reading a big Victorian novel seems like a risky move, but maybe stepping further away from contemporary stories is the perfect solution. And I’ve always found Victorian novels extremely readable, more so than a lot of contemporary fiction.

After that, I have a couple of library books (I went inside the library for the first time since March this week!) and shelves and shelves of my own books. We’ll see. I hope for better reading.

Posted in Classics, Contemporary, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

August Reading in Review

It is amazing how much reading I can get done when there are no movies or live theatre to go to and no restaurants for safe dining out with friends or really anywhere much to go. It was even too hot for most of August to go out for walks, which I did almost daily in the spring.

I’ve started doing some text-banking for the Biden campaign, which feels good to do. But mostly I’ve filled my days with working, reading, crocheting, cooking, and watching TV/movies (mostly TV because movies are harder to focus on). I’ve watched almost all of the Project Runway that’s available on Hulu and all three seasons of Dark on Netflix (which is a totally bonkers show that became impossible to follow by the end). And I’ve just started The Good Wife, which is proving to be an ideal show for right now. It has a nice mix of continuing drama and single-episode plot that is fitting my mood and level of concentration right now.

As for reading, this month was pretty mixed. Some sub-par books by authors I normally love, a few books that were basically ok, a few that I liked a lot, and one that absolutely knocked my socks off.

  • The Lost Traveller and The Sugar House by Antonia White. These two books are semi-sequels to Frost in May, which I read several years ago. I say semi-sequel because Clara Batchelor, the main character, has essentially the same background as Nanda and the books are usually treated as part of a quartet. The Lost Traveller has Clara trying to figure out what direction her life should take, which is a serious struggle given her parents’ competing visions. Toward the end, she faces a sudden and shocking tragedy that leads her to make a decision that she might never have otherwise, and it’s painful to watch her grapple with the consequences of her actions. The Sugar House finds Clara with an acting troupe, until she decides to get married, but neither she nor her husband are really ready for what marriage and independence mean. The two novels together show a sensitive young woman trying to take steps toward maturity but finding disappointment at almost every turn. White has Clara making big mistakes while, at the same time, showing great growth. She captures so much of what young adulthood is like, although Clara’s specific challenges are not really the norm.
  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book about a geeky teenage boy with girl troubles (that he no doubt blames the girls for) written by someone accused of sexual harassment. It just seemed like a formula for awfulness. But I did want to read all of the Tournament of Books winners before the Tournament of Champions this October, so I decided to at least try and get ready to abandon it if it was seriously annoying. I did enjoy Yunior as a narrator — having someone slightly on the outside tell the story of Oscar and his family kept it from feeling self-indulgent. I also liked the way Oscar’s geeky interests were woven into the story — they’re not just mentioned as a way to make Oscar seem like a person (ooh, he reads Tolkein and like the X Men), they’re treated as ways of seeing the world, as cultural touchstones that can illuminate what’s happening in real life. There was perhaps a little too much story here, and I never came to love it, but I’m not sorry to have read it.
  • The Lifted Veil by George Eliot. A supernatural novella that did not stick with me in the slightest. A man realizes he may be having psychic visions involving the woman his brother intends to marry, and it completely freaks him out. I’ve loved everything I read by Eliot, but this was an unusual kind of story for her, and maybe that’s just as well. It might have worked better as a short story, where it could pack a punch and be done, or a novel, where it could really dig deep into the characters’ psyches. But it was neither punchy enough or deep enough to make an impression on me.
  • Eventide by Kent Haruf. This was by far my favorite of the month. I already wrote a full review singing its praises, so I’ll just say here that Haruf’s writing is both spare and glorious, and the depictions of his characters so suffused with grace that I could spend hours upon hours in his world and with his people.
  • A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Jivan, a young Indian Muslim woman, is accused of being involved in a terrorist attack because of a few comments she made on Facebook. The are people who can testify on her behalf, but they’re caught up in their own personal dramas. Her former gym teacher, PT Sir, is climbing the political ladder. And Lovely, a transgender woman Jivan was tutoring, is trying to become an actress. The short chapters alternating among the three main characters kept me from ever getting fully immersed in this story because I kept having to reorient myself, but the ending did get to me.
  • To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King. The second Kate Martinelli novel finds Kate investigating the murder of an unidentified homeless man. As part of the investigation, she meets Brother Erasmus, a “holy fool” who spends time among both the homeless and the Berkeley’s theology students and may know something about the murder. From that point, the book becomes less about the murder investigation and more about figuring out Brother Erasmus, who speaks only in quotations. This is a fun one, and I’m glad I finally got around to the Martinelli series.
  • Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall. A teenage girl named Sara and a group of friends go searching for Sara’s missing sister down a haunted pathway where so so so many weird things happen. There are monsters and ghosts and general creepiness, but the scary stuff in this book is how the path messes with the characters’ minds. It was a little too long and the character relationships felt too convoluted, and although I mostly liked this, I was really ready to be done by the time the end came.
  • Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer. I’ve only read a few Georgette Heyer novels, but they’ve all been nice pick-me-ups. This was perfectly fine, but, in the end, not a favorite. I loved the premise — a wealthy man (the Viscount Ashley Desford) offers to help a poor young woman whose family is treating her badly, and it turns out to be more complicated than he expected. It started out very well, but so much of the book mostly just involves Desford going from one place to another, looking for someone to help but never quite succeeding. The lead characters are not very interesting, and the romantic leads get so little actual time together that we never get to enjoy their chemistry. In fact, the romance seems almost thrown in. I knew, though, that this was not considered one of Heyer’s best, so it wasn’t a huge disappointment.

For September, I’ve just finished The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, and I’m getting ready to start the final Clara Batchelor book, Beyond the Glass. I also have Dexter Palmer’s first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, out from the library. And I’m very excited about Susanna Clarke’s new book, Piranesi, and Marilynne Robinson’s new Gilead novel, Jack.

I’d love to hear about your reading. Anything you’re excited about? What did you love or hate in August? Or have you read any of my August books?

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 12 Comments

Eventide

Back in February, I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf and loved it. I had every intention to get to the next book in the series within a month or two but, alas, the pandemic intervened and I’m only just now getting to Eventide. It’s every bit as good. Like Plainsong, this book tells stories of the people of the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado.

Most of the characters in this book are new to the story, although the McPherson brothers and Victoria Roubideaux return. For me, they function as the emotional core of the story, so I was glad to see them back. And the long evolution of their lives makes it helpful to read Plainsong before Eventide, even if they are among the only characters to appear in both books. Along with the brothers and Victoria are Luther and Betty Wallace, a couple getting by on food stamps but struggling with illness and how to take care of their kids. There’s also young DJ Kephart, who lives with his elderly grandfather and befriends Dena and Emma Wells, who live nearby. And there are plenty of supporting characters, like teacher Tim Guthrie, a central character from Plainsong, and Rose Tyler, the social worker whose life ends up connecting with multiple stories.

This is the third book by Haruf that I’ve read, and I find his work immensely comforting, even if horrible things happen in the books. This book is not lacking in tragedy at all. There’s a sudden and violent death and a shocking incident of child abuse with long-term devastating consequences (consequences that are both unjust and seemingly unavoidable). Yet I felt comforted by it in the end. Part of it, I think, is that it shows people persevering, just continuing to go on in spite of tragedy. Sometimes tragedy even opens new doors, although that fact is never presented in a sentimental way or in a way that feels meant to erase the pain. I think, too, that Haruf shows great tenderness toward his characters. I can think of only one who seems open to scorn and that’s because he intentionally inflicts pain.

The depiction of Luther and Betty is an example of Haruf’s tenderness toward his characters. They are struggling and not always doing a good job of managing in their struggles. Their poverty is not depicted in some romantic way, in which you get the sense that their children would have perfect meals and everything would get done beautifully if they only had more money. They genuinely don’t seem to know what to do a lot of the time, as becomes evident when we see them discussing how to apply what they’re learning in a parenting class they’ve been required to take. And they have some undefined health issues that make it hard for them to do more than the bare minimum, if that — yet it’s never quite clear if the health problems are to some extent an excuse or if the continued difficulty managing them is really a sign that the system isn’t providing adequate health care (or a little bit of both). Yet, in all of this, in the narrative they are treated with dignity. Some other characters condemn them, but Haruf simply shows us what they do and say and lets us as readers feel how we feel. My own heart broke for them because, especially in the scene after the parenting class, I could see that they were trying but were simply at a loss.

I also must say a few words about Haruf’s prose. It’s extremely crisp. He uses short, but descriptive sentences to tell us what the characters do and say. We don’t get a lot of their thoughts unless they are actually deliberately thinking those thoughts, yet we generally know what the characters are thinking. It’s remarkable how much Haruf packs into his sentences. Here’s a sample, from early in the novel, after the McPheron brothers have dropped off Victoria and her daughter Katie (who have been living with them) in Fort Collins, where Victoria is beginning college:

Then they drove home in the pickup. Heading east away from the mountains and the city, out onto the silent high plains spread out flat and dark under the bright myriad indifferent stars. It was late when they pulled into the drive and stopped in front of the house. They had scarcely spoken in two hours. The yardlight on the pole beside the garage had come on in their silence, casting dark purple shadows past the garage and the outbuildings and past the three stunted elm trees standing inside the hogfencing that surrounded the gray clapboard house.
In the kitchen Raymond poured milk into a pan on the stove and heated it and got down a box of crackers from the cupboaard. They sat at the table under the overhead light and drank down the warm milk without a word. It was silent in the house. There was not even the sound of wind outside for them to hear.

It just cast a spell on me. The descriptions of food are especially note-worthy throughout the books, even though, as in this example, it’s often very simple food. The way Haruf writes about it is often so revealing of character.

I loved this book and hope to read Benediction by the end of the year. If you haven’t read Haruf, I encourage you to give his books a try. I started with Our Souls at Night and do recommend that or Plainsong as a great place to begin.

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July Reading (a week into August)

Happily, I was able to do much more reading in July than I did in June! A lot of it was an exploratory sort of reading — will I enjoy this? What about this? — and some of it was just for the pleasure of reading something I knew for sure I would like. Here it is:

These are the books I read in a more exploratory spirit. I’ve already talked about The Changeling, and I’m going to write about Beyond Black separately, because it was a stunner, so I’ll write about the rest of these briefly.

I feel like I must have been the last person on earth to read Madeline Miller’s Circe. Everyone I know here has read it (partly because it was the book for our public library’s Spokane Reads last year, but still.) But even late to the game, I liked it quite well. I was a big mythology buff as a kid, and it was so enjoyable to see this one retold from a different point of view. I especially liked the bits where Circe invents witchcraft, and the bits about the deep-sea creature who provides the poison for the spear. (Don’t mess with what’s in the deep sea! It’s my personal motto!)

I had kind of given up on seeing much more writing from John Crowley, who is one of my all-time favorite authors, and so I was entirely delighted to see & Go Like This, a book of his short stories. Reading them was such a satisfying experience; I loved them. My favorite of them was a novella called “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines,” which is a love story and a story about invisibility and disability and connection and disconnection and what endures and why.

The third volume of the graphic novel of American Gods was… a bit more-of-the-samey. Perhaps I should have re-read the first two volumes, to get the momentum back? I really like the novel, and I liked this as well, but reading it on its own lacked some of the oomph of my memory of the end of the book. The art is eerie and terrific, though.

The only nonfiction I read this month was Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving, which I read for my book club. Despite the fact that Tutu is an Anglican archbishop, this book is written for a broad audience — for people of any religious background or none. Of course he references his own faith at times, but his premise is that forgiveness is necessary for society, for healthy relationships, and for our own mental flourishing. Taking examples from the very personal to the national and international, Tutu shows both the necessity and the way forward to forgiving and being forgiven, even in situations where forgiveness might seem impossible. I started reading this quite skeptically, but I think this is a very good and relevant book.

These are the books I read, knowing they would be enjoyable and relaxing!

Despite being a Constant Reader as a child, there are many authors and series I never even touched. Noel Streatfeild is one of those. So I finally tried Ballet Shoes (as her most famous) and The Bell Family (for good measure) to see what it was like! What a pleasure. The realistic details about the theater and dancing, the bits about ego and vocation and family, the way the genteel poor scrape and make do, and a sort of feminism (in the sense that the girls should be able to support themselves and want to make a name for themselves in the history books) — it was all so much fun. I’ll add that I watched a superb adaptation of Ballet Shoes, with Emma Watson in it, and that was just as much fun as the books.

It took me a long time to take Other Jenny’s recommendation and read Hilary McKay’s Wishing for Tomorrow, which is (if you will believe it) a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Never would I ever have thought that another author’s sequel to a classic that I’ve read one meelion times would be so wonderful, except if Other Jenny had recommended it. This sequel has Ermengarde as a main character, but also helps us understand the inner lives of Lavinia, Lottie, Jessie, and even the dreadful Miss Minchin. It was partly a perfect homage to the original, and partly a perfect work of its own.

I tried Miss Read’s Village School because I was listening to the Backlisted podcast (this is the only podcast I listen to; does anyone else listen to it? It’s fab) and they mentioned her and I realized I had heard of her many times and never read any of her many, many, many books. This is the first of her Fairacre series, and she has another series about Thrush Green. Both series, I think, are about a certain view of English country life. This book was about as… er… peaceful as you can get: school opens, schoolmistress is replaced, there’s a harvest fair, someone has a baby, Christmas happens, spring happens, we play cricket, there’s a parish fete, summer happens, school’s out, someone gets married, the end. If this is the sort of thing you like, you’re going to like this very much. I liked it… okay? I guess? I was bored nearly to sleep, but it was fine. I did notice that it was extremely classist, in the sense that the schoolmistress and the vicar and a couple of other people are “we” and most of the people who go to the village school are “they” even if they are trying hard to make some money and have extra things (including a good education) for their children. There’s also some racism in the form of some “gypsy” children, who I suppose are extra “they.” This was not very pleasant to read even over the course of about 200 pages, but if you can ignore it, I’m sure it’s very much “how we used to be” and all that. I see that often enough where I live to recognize it.

I have been reading Laurie King’s Russell-Holmes mysteries since 1996, and all these years later, Riviera Gold did not disappoint! This sixteenth (!) installment in the series, about a mystery in Monaco, showed how well this sort of thing can be done: it filled new readers in on the situation without copy-pasting phrases or paragraphs from other books; it settled into a comfortable partnership without feeling boring or worn-out; it used an interesting setting and even real historical people without making them the central focus of the mystery; it used intelligence and danger and wit and cups of tea and balanced them all like spinning plates. I love this series. If you’ve never read them, start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and see if it’s for you.

As for August, I’m nearing the end of Moby Dick, so that’s going to be a whopper! Watch this space! Let me know what you’ve been up to, as well!

 

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July in Review

July brought a few baby steps toward normalcy. I started using my library’s no-contact curbside service, which works really well. And my church started having outdoor services last week, with masks, social distancing, and reservations required. (The reservations are to ensure there’s space for distancing in our small amphitheater.) I’ve continued crocheting and finished a shawl in Tunisian crochet and couple of beaded jewelry pieces and a few afghan squares. I’m currently pondering what to do with the leftover yarn I used for the shawl. I really liked the shawl, except I wish it were bigger, so I may make another with a larger hook, or I may look for a new pattern. So far, I’ve just followed patterns in the various subscription boxes I receive, and I get overwhelmed if I look for one to try on my own. If anyone has recommendations for a relatively easy project that requires a couple of skeins of sportweight yarn, I’m happy to receive them. As for reading, I did a lot of it in July, most of it quite good! A mix of old and new, popular and obscure, fiction and nonfiction. The way I like my reading to be.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara: This true-crime book about the Golden State Killer was pretty gripping, although the large number of victims and locations was hard to keep track of. For me, the really interesting thing about the book was the process of writing it. Michelle McNamara was a true crime blogger who started looking into the cases and gained the respect of a lot of the investigators. Tragically, she died before finishing the book and before the killer was found. As a result, sections of the book are built from her notes and published articles.

Network Effect by Martha Wells: The first full-length novel in the extremely enjoyable Murderbot series includes the return of ART, my favorite character in the series. Murderbot continues its growth as a character, learning to balance competing priorities and loyalties and follow its instincts. One minor issue I have with these books is that the plot can be hard to follow, because Wells just plunks readers into the action. It took me a while to find my footing here — longer than in the novellas — but once I did, I had a great time. I think, though, I might have enjoyed it a hair more as a novella.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: My church has been having weekly discussions on race and policing in America, using this book as a guide. Alexander provides lots of information on how the war on drugs has disproportionately affected Black people, even as white people are no less guilty of illegal drug use. It’s 10 years old, but the landscape hasn’t changed much, as best I can tell. I’m glad, though, that more people are talking about it.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Stella and Desiree are light-skinned Black twins, one of whom chooses to live as a white woman. As in her previous novel, The Mothers, Bennett shows a lot of sympathy for her characters’ choices, even when they’re clearly wrong. She follows the characters across decades and shows the effects of their choices in the next generation. I did have some minor reservations about the inclusion of a trans man in book. On the one hand, it was great to see a trans man just accepted for who he is, and the love story he’s part of is really sweet. But I worry about the potential for placing his transition in parallel with racial passing. It’s not something remarked on in the book, but I wondered about it. I’m curious about how trans readers are reacting to book but have not yet found anything.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: I obviously know how to read a book, but this book is really about how to extract as much understanding as possible from informational texts. Some of the advice seemed counter-intuitive — such as to keep reading and not look everything that you don’t understand. But I don’t think this kind of reading, which involves skimming, outlining, and reading again more carefully, is appropriate for every book and every reader. The authors acknowledge that such reading isn’t necessary or useful for every book. But they also suggest that, for good nonfiction, this is the right and most virtuous way to read. It might be the way to get the most out of a book, but I think it’s also okay just to get what you feel like getting from a book in the moment.

The Soloist by Mark Salzman: Renee was a cello prodigy who, as an adult, lost the ability to play well. He lives alone and teaches but has no clear direction now that he’s lost his talent. Participating in a jury in a murder trial and teaching another young prodigy gradually gives him a new perspective. I found the ending of this book, which shows a new way of thinking about limitations and possibilities, to be quite moving (and it involves a cat, which is a bonus).

The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: In this 1947 novel, a suburban wife named Lucia whose husband has gone to the war finds herself covering up a murder for the sake of her family. And the cover-up brings her into contact with a variety shady characters, doing things no one would suspect her of doing, but also putting her under scrutiny for a whole other set of reasons. It’s a great book, and I liked watching Lucia use the inner resources nobody saw in her, and I worried about how it would turn out for her as her situation gets increasingly desperate.

The Witch Elm by Tana French: Alas, I’m now caught up on Tana French. Her books are so reliably good! This, her first standalone book, features a dead body in a tree and a main character whose memory is messed up, thanks to a head injury incurred during a break-in. So you have a character trying to solve a murder that he himself may have committed. It’s long but I was able to whip through it. I still think Broken Harbour is my favorite Tana French, but this was really good.

Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile: A disturbing novel about a teenage girl named Susanna who seduces the father who abandoned her as a baby. Also extremely sad, because Susanna seems to know no good way to experience love, in part because her family never gave it to her. And when people do offer her appropriate love and friendship, she’s unable to accept. The last part of the novel shifts in tone, as Susanna faces the consequences of what she’s done. Weirdly, I found this last part harder to read than the disturbing main story, I think because there was no more tension to resolve. It was just pain at that point.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison: Set in the 1680s, this book features the voices of a variety of members of a small farming household, servants and landowners. As is typical of Morrison, she treats all her characters with great dignity, even when the society they’re part of does not. Most of the characters are women, and even the woman with the most power doesn’t have any good choices. The book itself feels like an act of mercy, giving voices to women whom history silenced.


As for August, I’m going to continue a mix of old and new books from my shelves and the library. I’ve started The Lost Traveller by Antonia White, sequel to Frost in May, which I read and loved years ago. I have all of books in that series and will probably read them all. I’ll also probably read A Burning by Megha Majumdar for my local bookstore’s book group. And I have one book left from the Tournament of Books Tournament of Champions, coming this fall: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s not a book I’d necessarily be inclined to read if it weren’t for the competition, but I also don’t expect it to be a slog. If it is, I’ll move on to something else!

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime, Nonfiction | 4 Comments